leadership dot #3940: supervise first

A fallacy I see too often with new supervisors is that they inherit a staff and think “Whew, I’ll now have less to do because I’ve got these other people to do things.” While others may take certain tasks off the supervisor’s plate, to be effective, it means replacing those tasks with the very intentional duty of supervision.

To be an effective supervisor takes time. Lots of time. It takes time to hold weekly one-to-one meetings with each of your direct reports (but I believe they are oh-so-important to do). It takes time to cultivate relationships and learn the strengths of those on your team, whether they are direct reports or not. It takes time to build and foster a culture that promotes psychological safety and belonging. It takes time to cultivate relationships outside your area of purview that will prove beneficial for your team. It takes time to be visible and aware enough of what is going on so that you are able to provide both meaningful feedback and recognize extra effort.

People are challenged when they forget their job is supervision and fail to allocate time in their load to attend to it thoroughly. Managers get caught up with other meetings, budgets, external demands, planning, etc., and aren’t intentional about the people aspect of their role. I think it’s one of the biggest mistakes they can make.

You are only as strong as your staff. Short-changing supervision on your list of priorities may save you a few hours in the short term but it’s never a good strategy overall. Supervise first and you’ll have created a team that can help you accomplish the rest.

leadership dot #3919: quadrants

When employees feel like they have a voice it aids in their satisfaction and thus, retention. Rather than just asking people how they feel, a simple matrix can allow them to frame their reflections in a way that allows them to see the bigger picture of a department or unit. By asking four questions, people can share their thinking in ways that can become actionable rather than just venting.

The four quadrants are: 1) What is going well? 2) What needs to be strengthened? 3) What is confusing? and 4) What is missing?

These questions work well for staff reflection but are also helpful for evaluating other relationships or projects. We tend to focus on what is working or not working and don’t dig deeper to think about whether confusion or omissions are part of the issue. This tool can help alleviate those blind spots.

The next time you want input on something, ask for feedback through the lens of this matrix. It just might lead to more robust conversations about what is next.

Thanks, Brian!

leadership dot #3913: audition

I’ve been re-watching Friday Night Lights and remarked about how perfect Kyle Chandler is in the Coach Eric Taylor role. The other actors are wonderful and the script does a great job of developing the story, but in my opinion, Chandler makes the show.

I’m always in awe of casting agents who somehow seem to find just the right person to bring a character to life. Choosing between Great Actor A or Great Actor B can re-shape the whole movie as no matter who is chosen creates their own imprint on the work. Not that one is good or bad, so to make the right choice, agents and directors need a clear idea of what they are looking for in that audition. Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Rachel McAdams, Kate Hudson, and Kirsten Dunst were all considered for the Andy Sachs role in The Devil Wears Prada, but it would have been a different movie without Anne Hathaway.

The same is true in a hiring situation. Managers may be faced with several resumes that represent qualified potential employees, but to cast the right person in the role they need to know the attributes and traits that are most desirable in the position — spending time to craft a vision of what they are looking for beyond the generic job description duties, and then developing a position description and interview questions that align with that.

Who you “cast” onto your team will influence your culture and performance outcomes for the length of their employment. Invest the time to be clear about what a star looks like in this particular role before you “audition” anyone.

leadership dot #3912: empowered

I recently facilitated a session about supervising college students. One of the feedback comments said that they wished I would have told more stories about the problems I had with student employees and how I resolved them. The truth is, I don’t have that many stories to share — about problems with students or professional employees — largely due to how I was clear about expectations right from the start.

I am reminded of a story that Michelle Obama shared about how her mother gave her an alarm clock when she started kindergarten. Mrs. Robinson taught her daughter how to use it; she worked with her to consider all that had to be done in the morning so Michelle knew what time to set it, and then she empowered her to use it. No nagging, no hounding, no problem stories to share.

I have said before that I think supervisors cause as many problems as employees do because they don’t have ongoing conversations about responsibilities or performance. But if you set people up for success by giving them the clarity and tools they need, my experience has been that most will rise to achieve. Start from that premise.

leadership dot #3909: blind

I have written before (dot #1693) about the JoHari Window — four quadrants that help identify how you see yourself and how others see you. In addition to being a tool for self-awareness, the JoHari Window is an ideal way to frame feedback conversations.

Too often, we shy away from giving feedback and we’re not big fans of receiving it, either. But considered through the JoHari lens, feedback is almost the only way that we can move information from the “Blind” quadrant into the “Open” quadrant where we are able to act upon it. Just because no one has the courage to tell you that your speech was awful, that you are seen as aloof, or that you have spinach in your teeth doesn’t mean those things don’t exist. If they remain unsaid, you continue to be blind to them even though others are fully aware. The reverse is true, and if you’re not told that you’re smart, or that your report was well laid out, or that you have a great sense of style, you will remain oblivious to strengths you can build on.

The next time you find yourself in feedback situation — either as a giver or receiver — harken back to the brilliant work of Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham and remind yourself that the goal of most communication is to move from Blind to Open. Sharing feedback with others provides them with that true gift of knowledge.

leadership dot #702a: SWWC

My former boss had a small, engraved sign on his desk that simply said:  S W W C.

For the longest time, I wondered what that meant but did not have the courage to ask. It was positioned in such a way that it obviously was meant as a reminder to himself, much like the way the W W J D bracelets signaled their wearers to be cognizant of What Would Jesus Do in life’s situations.

Finally, we developed a comfort level with each other where I was brave enough to inquire. The answer:  So What Who Cares. He meant it in the best possible way.

SWWC signified that he had to do what was right for the organization, and it did not matter if a special interest was upset by the decision. SWWC could pose as a question as to whether a decision was relevant and created an impact — who would benefit from the action and were they the group that should matter. SWWC kept him away from the petty issues since no one cared about their outcome.

It is a simple mantra, but one that may help you tune out the noise to remain focused on what matters.  Whether on a plaque or on a bracelet, the omnipresent reminders can keep you centered and on course.

Originally published in modified form on May 4, 2014.

leadership dot #685a: gouda or badda?

Our local grocery store has recently added a new section of specialty cheeses. These are pricey brands that are perishable and require refrigeration, so the company has made a substantial investment in the area.

As a result, they have assigned one of the workers a monthly quota to sell these new cheeses. They have directed her to provide samples and to come from behind the deli counter into the cheese section to encourage customers to learn about (and then buy!) these upscale items. From corporate’s standpoint, it is a reasonable expectation of this employee.
The problem is that this employee was productive and busy in the deli before the cheese responsibilities were added on. It makes no sense to have someone handing out cubes of cheese when there is a line of customers waiting for deli sandwiches to be made. There was no replacement assigned to the deli and so from the employee and shoppers’ perspectives, the specialty quota is a dumb idea.
Conflicting expectations only serve to frustrate and confuse people. Have you inadvertently placed your employees in a similar situation?  Do you know?  Asking about implications before making assignment changes often yields feedback that can only come from those with intimate insight. The cheese stands alone; don’t you fall into that trap.
Originally published in modified form on April 17, 2014

leadership dot #3895: conductor

It’s a tough transition to go from a “do-er” to a supervisor — trading in your hands-on tendencies to instead focus on oversight and motivating others. For those who struggle at the prospect of “telling” others what to do while in a supervisory role, I use the analogy of a one-man band and a conductor.

Before you have supervisory authority, you play all the instruments. When you’re a supervisor, you’re a conductor where you don’t directly play any instrument at all. The conductor doesn’t order the artist to play the violin or demand that the drums come in on cue; they have outlined clear expectations up front (the sheet music) and can play a role to direct and inspire the artists to join in when needed. It’s better music when the conductor is there helping everyone contribute in the best way possible,

Conducting looks easy, until you have to do it. Only then do all the nuances and intricacies show up and you realize that while you were pretty darn good at juggling all the instruments, this new role will take some practice. It’s a scary leap, but also a rewarding one.

If you’re in a junior position and haven’t yet been given the responsibility of supervising, practice your “conducting” skills in any way possible — heading a committee, a volunteer group, leading a neighborhood event, or organizing the family reunion. The more you can become comfortable in helping others succeed, the better prepared you will be to orchestrate your own team.

leadership dot #3863: hanging

The university where I teach expects that all the adult classes will have a “learning team” or group project component so I often hear feedback about troubles students encounter with this assignment. I think they would rather do all their work independently, but learning to navigate a team environment is as important to learn as the content of their project.

The biggest aggravation I hear is that one team member does not pull their weight or even participate at all. My response: teams, as with any partnership, are never equal. Hopefully, they aren’t totally lopsided but sometimes you have to do more than your “fair share” for the project to succeed.

What should you do when (not if) you face a dysfunctional team member? If possible, talk with them face-to-face and clarify what they can do. While you need to focus on the end product, it is just as important to preserve the relationship. If you don’t make it safe for them to share their reality, create conditions for them to save face, or allow them to say “I am swamped all next week and can’t do anything” then you wreck the relationship AND the work product. “Never promise more than you can perform” were words I used often. It gives the person an out.

It goes back to Covey’s Circle of Concern/Influence — you only control what you can influence, not what is your concern. You have to rely on faith that the boss will know what is really going on and take action separately to correct the situation or enact appropriate consequences. That is not your direct concern. Your job is to accomplish the end product so knowing a team member is able/willing to do nothing is FAR better than having them promise to do something and then leave you hanging.

leadership dot #3847: expedient

A recent job vacancy created the opportunity to rethink the position but instead of addressing that prospect, a long-term employee was appointed to the role. It was certainly the expedient way to fill the job and the learning curve will be less than with any of the other candidates…

…but the growth curve will likely be less too. By focusing on the short term, the supervisor forfeited the chance to reimagine how the office could be structured and opted out of infusing the work with a new perspective.

Time pressures too often get in the way of addressing the systemic issues that are important but not urgent, but this results in continual emergencies and fires to put out because the important is never addressed. Whether it be for personnel vacancies, major purchases, or integral operating procedures, consider the broader implications of the decision you are making.

Problem quickly solved for today; opportunities lost for tomorrow.